Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Speech for the 70th anniversary of the Goethe-Institut in Athens on October 12, 2022

President Carola Lentz stands at the speaker's podium. On the screen behind her it says “70 years  Goethe-Institut.”
President Carola Lentz at the ceremony to 70 years Goethe-Institut in Athens | © Goethe-Institut Athen/Vangelis Patsialos

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Goethe-Institut in Athens, Carola Lentz, President of the Goethe-Institut, pleads for a multi-voiced, future-oriented European culture of remembrance.

In 1952, just a few years after the end of the war, Athens was the first foreign location to open following the reestablishment of the Goethe-Institut in Munich a year earlier. As is so often the case, it needed people who were actively involved. Werner Günther, a proven expert on Greece and Athens who had already worked for the Deutsche Akademie founded in Munich in 1925, was largely responsible for the new foundation in Athens. The institute quickly developed from a mere provider of language courses and examinations into a central cultural actor that took up new artistic trends but also openly confronted its own past – the current project on the archive of the Goethe-Institut and the exhibition prepared for the anniversary are living expressions of this effort.

To open an institute for the German language and cultural exchange with Germany in Athens so few years after the horrific war crimes committed by Germany in Greece was not a matter of course! And so, on behalf of the Goethe-Institut, I would like to begin by expressing my great gratitude to our Greek hosts and partners for their critical guidance and friendly support over the past seven decades.

An anniversary invites us to take a look at the past. However, such a look cannot simply visualise history historiographically, in the sense of presenting “how it actually was” as objectively as possible, to quote Leopold von Ranke, the father of historicism. Any view of the past is inevitably selective. It is shaped by current challenges and visions of the future. Memory takes place in the present and actively seeks to shape the future. That is why memory is always controversial.

The idiom of history is used to argue about present positions and desirable futures. This applies to the memory of every family, every organisation and every nation state. And it is even more true for the transnational politics of memory between nation states, between former war opponents or between colonial masters and the colonised. It would be presumptuous to speak too quickly here of common, shared memory. Rather, we must acknowledge that perspectives on the past can be different, even contrary. And we should discuss this with each other carefully and respectfully.

Above all, we Germans must listen. We must respect the pain of others, the historical traumas and ask about our own responsibility. This is the prerequisite for seeking connections and building bridges together with our partners all over the world. And that is precisely what the Goethe-Institut wants and can contribute to.

Before I present you with some reflections on a European culture of remembrance, allow me a digression on my own connections with Greece and Greek intellectuals.

Exactly fifty years ago, in October 1972, I began my studies at the University of Göttingen, in German and political science. I soon joined a small group of dedicated students who attended Kosmas Psychopedis' seminars, where they intensively studied the classics of political philosophy – Kant and Hegel, Marx and finally Max Weber. Kosmas Psychopedis, born in Athens in 1944, had first studied in Athens and then sought refuge in Germany after the junta came to power in 1967. He studied in Frankfurt with Theodor W. Adorno and Iring Fetscher and came to Göttingen after his doctorate in 1973 as a research assistant, later as an academic councillor. I had the great good fortune to be able to participate in the close intellectual exchange with him over the years, which took place not only at the university, but also in his flat and the Greek pubs in the neighbourhood. Such a delightful symposium of an academic teacher who took us students seriously as equal discussion partners and spurred us on to intellectual excellence is almost unimaginable at today's universities! Kosmas then habilitated in 1981 and went back to Athens, but our bonds of friendship remained. Kosmas worked first at the Pantios College of Political Science, later at Kapodistrias University. He was a pugnacious, passionate fighter for the Enlightenment and rationalism, and incidentally also organised some conferences at the Goethe-Institut Athens. His wife Olympia Frangou-Psychopedis, an outstanding musicologist, also organised a congress together with the Goethe-Institut. Unfortunately, they both passed away far too early, Kosmas in 2004, Olympia in 2017. But I remember with great gratitude these inspiring connections, also to other Greek intellectuals who lived in exile in Göttingen.

Also fifty years ago, in March 1972, a legendary art exhibition took place at the Goethe-Institut in Athens, or its “Studio for Modern Art”, with works by a group of young Greek artists, the so-called “Young Realists”, in which Jannis Psychopedis, Kosmas' younger brother, also took part. Jannis first went to Germany in 1971, to the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, later returned to Greece for military service and then commuted between Germany, Greece and Belgium. The 1972 Athens exhibition of works by young artists critical of the regime attracted enormous numbers of visitors and is said to have provoked incredulous amazement from the Greek security forces. But the programme director of the Goethe-Institut Johannes Weissert granted the exhibition and the participating artists special protection – an example of the role as a shelter and place of refuge that the Goethe-Institut has always played in authoritarian countries and must play today more than ever.

The Russian war of aggression on Ukraine presents Europe with new challenges. Solidarity between European states plays an even more important role than before in the new polarised geostrategic configuration. Relations between Greece and Germany also occupy a central place here. Strengthening European cohesion: the Goethe-Institut with its network throughout Europe also wants to and can make a contribution to this. It does this in particular by supporting connections between civil society actors and artists – an important counterweight to diplomatic and economic interdependencies.

I am convinced that resilient and sustainable European connections can only succeed on the basis of an open and self-critical examination of the often traumatic history of these relations. How present this past is again and again in the present could be experienced during Greece's sovereign debt crisis in the 2010s, when people in Greece remembered Germany's role as an occupier and old stereotypes about a Balkans incapable of reform were called up in Germany.

Similar examples can be observed in Germany's relations with our Polish and Italian neighbours, and even the often invoked Franco-German friendship does not prevent old wounds from reopening on the occasion of current political differences. Everything passes, except the past: this title of a book by the Belgian sociologist Luc Huyse – he also inspired the title of a European project of the Goethe-Institut on colonial heritage – aptly refers to the power of the past across generations.

To banish this potentially destructive power of the past, active memory work is needed. “A consensus on what constitutes the European project and its future will remain difficult”, writes Aleida Assmann in her book The European Dream (2018), “as long as there is no understanding or recognition of the shared history of violence.” Part of this history of violence is that the German imperial project, as Mark Terkessidis stated at a discussion event at the Goethe-Institut Athens in October 2020, was not only directed at overseas colonies, but also at the East and Central Europe.

As already stated in his book, Whose Memory Counts? Colonial Past and Racism Today (2019), Terkessidis called for Greece and the Balkans in particular to play a greater role in German remembrance policy with regard to the crimes of the Wehrmacht and Nazis in World War II, in his discussion with Greek historian Kostis Papaioannou and social anthropologist Athena Athanasiou. The coalition agreement of the current German government also calls for a more intensive examination of German colonial history and the war of extermination in the East, in addition to the continued central remembrance of the Holocaust.

But how can we remember the intertwined violent histories of European societies and states in such a way that a more humane, democratic future becomes possible? Politicians, historians, intellectuals and artists are by no means in agreement about this. The transnational politics of remembrance is controversial, but even within the individual nation states, the way history is dealt with is multi-voiced, if not controversial.

In Germany, for example, we are experiencing a bitter debate about how to deal with the Holocaust and its relationship to colonial crimes, especially on the occasion of the anti-Semitic works shown at Documenta. Some see in the current discussion a new edition of the first historians' dispute of 1986 on the question of the uniqueness of the Holocaust in relation to the Gulag, while others rather emphasise the new dimensions of the current discussion, as can be read in the recently published anthology with position statements under the title Historiker streiten (2022).

How can we find ways of engagement that respect polyphony without fuelling unfruitful polarisation? Charlotte Wiedemann's stimulating book The Pain of Others. Holocaust and World Memory (2022) makes a strong case for the concept of empathy. She self-critically asks which dead and which historical mass crimes we give our empathy to, and pleads for a universalisation of mourning and empathy. Memories of the Holocaust and colonial crimes should not compete with each other – a demand that Michael Rothberg has also made with his arguments for the possibility of a “multidirectional memory”. The universalisation of empathy, of course, presupposes reversing collective processes of repression and bringing the seemingly more distant or repressed atrocities closer to our consciousness. And that seems possible to me only on the basis of more knowledge. A broad, transnationally compassionate remembering and the creation of a “world memory” seem to me to be worthwhile goals, but they require many preconditions and are difficult. I would therefore not so much call for empathy and solidarity, but rather for a strong search for connections – which can also be problematic and call up divisive issues.

The South African-Israeli historian Tali Nates, one of the winners of the Goethe Medal 2022, has implemented this concept of connections in the Johannesburg Genocide & Holocaust Centre, which she founded in 2008. The centre primarily conducts educational and awareness-raising work aimed at South African young people, but also documents Jewish life stories in their diverse connections to South Africa, but also far beyond. And it commemorates the genocide in Rwanda. Born in Israel in 1961 as the child of Holocaust survivors who were rescued by Oskar Schindler, Tali Nates is far from relativising the Holocaust. But she wants to trace biographical and social connections between different histories of violence.

In a panel discussion in Weimar as part of the award ceremony, she explained how such a search for connections could look concretely at her centre. According to Tali Nates, quite a few of the escaped Jews who sought refuge from National Socialism in South Africa became supporters of the apartheid policy, from which they benefited as whites. In contrast, many young black South Africans see Israel – against the background of their own experiences with the South African apartheid regime – as an apartheid state and show solidarity with the Palestinians in a way that can also take on anti-Semitic characteristics. Educational work on the Holocaust in South Africa must bring these different perspectives into conversation with each other and show the connections between the different fates.

Moreover, according to Tali Nates, one cannot really talk about the Holocaust and genocide in South Africa without including the genocide in Rwanda, which took the lives of a million Tutsis at the very time South Africa was celebrating the end of the apartheid regime. Close links to this and other African histories of violence would arise not least from the presence of refugees and migrants from neighbouring African countries. The xenophobic riots in South Africa would demonstrate how necessary educational work is here that relates the life stories of South African youth to those of refugee families.

It becomes clear here that the many-voiced work of remembrance along biographical-historical connections by no means produces a harmonious overall picture, but contains a lot of conflict material. But this has to be endured and worked through if a resilient and future-oriented peaceful coexistence is to emerge. I believe there is much to be learned from Tali Nates' magnificent remembrance project and her search for connections for the necessary steps on the way to a multi-voiced European culture of remembrance. Such remembrance work needs solid knowledge about the historical events, far beyond the narrow national framework. It requires not only empathy with the victims, but also knowledge about the perpetrators and the dynamics of exclusion and escalation of violence. And one should be aware of the historicity of memory cultures.

If my research on African commemorative politics-independence celebrations, hero commemorations and much more – has taught me one thing, it is how much commemorative practices and cultures can change over time. Monument topplings and the erection of new memorials alternate; holidays are established and then abolished again by the next government. This happens mainly because new political lines of conflict change the view of history and because new visions of a desirable future want to invoke a different heritage. If memory practices have always changed in the past, we can change them now and in the future!

In general, perhaps we first need more “history culture” than “memory culture”. We need a curious and open remembrance work that is based on knowledge and can withstand ambivalences as well as disputes, but at the same time also seeks to build bridges. And for this, in turn, we need open spaces and diverse networks in which such exchange can take place. The Goethe-Institut with its worldwide network can make a contribution to this and has already done so, not least in Greece and together with Greek intellectuals and artists.

Time is running out, and I can only touch on examples of this.

The work of Jannis Psychopedis, for example, whom I mentioned at the beginning, has repeatedly addressed the issue of cultural heritage and Greek history in the European space in a variety of ways. Among the works shown at the Goethe-Institut in March 1972, for example, was the series “Seminars”, which critically set itself apart from the then officially propagated dogma of “Greekness” and cleverly addressed the socio-political change in the country, which had been interrupted by force. Psychopedis remained true to the theme of a critical examination of ideologies and myths of Greece in the following decades. And through his cosmopolitan biography and close contacts with German artists and intellectuals, he also became one of the important voices at Documenta 14, which sought to forge links between Germany and Greece –at a time when the massive upheavals caused by the debt crisis were still being felt. Incidentally, fruitful connections between the perspectives of Greek and German intellectuals and artists were also created at the time when the Goethe-Institut Athens followed up the exhibition of the Greek “Young Realists” in autumn 1972 with an exhibition of twelve Berlin artists under the title “Critical Realism”.

I am very pleased that Maria Stefanopoulou will be speaking afterwards. With her novel Athos the Forester (published in Greek in 2015, in German in 2019), which I read with great enthusiasm, she has written a central work on the necessary and painful work of remembrance in relation to German crimes in Greece. It reflects not least on the special role of art and literature in this remembrance work. “I never spoke about the war, neither about the war against the Germans nor about the Greek civil war-if only because I was tormented by gaps in my memory for many years. Then the memory returned through images, exclusively through images that – although they haunted me and overshadowed my thoughts - did not interfere with my everyday life”, is how Stefanopoulou lets her protagonist Athos speak.

I found it particularly revealing how differently the narrators from different generations look at the crime of Kalavryta, how differently they put it into words and judge it. While Athos did not want to take sides in a country torn apart by partisan and civil war, others in the novel take a clearer stand, and Athos' granddaughter Lefki says: “Although she was only born twelve years later, she felt that it was her duty and obligation to help the dead man to his rights and bring him back to life.” The novel is about the many facets of cross-generational post-traumatic memory work. Only the third generation does the explicit memory work, while the first generation survives and the second tries to evade the historical wounds by forgetting. But it is only the fourth generation, Lefki's daughter Iokaste, who breaks out of the oppressive cycle of victim-perpetrator narratives.

I was fascinated by the way Stefanopoulou weaves connections with German actors into the multi-layered plot of the novel-with a Wehrmacht deserter and later comrade of Athos in a common stance of anti-heroism, and with the German Inge Brahms, who as a descendant of the perpetrator nation sets out on a historical search for traces (an allusion to the historian Ehrengard Schramm-von Thadden, who already took care of the survivors of Kalavryta in the 1950s).

The painful experience of remembering is also the focus of the exhibition “Split Memories. Greece 1940-1950. Between History and Experience”. This exhibition project represents an exemplary cooperation between German and Greek partners – from the Jewish Museum Thessaloniki, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art Thessaloniki and the German Historical Museum Berlin. First shown in Thessaloniki in 2016-17, there is currently a digital return to Germany in cooperation with the Nazi Documentation Centre in Cologne, Thessaloniki's twin city. “Split Memories” is dedicated to one of the most depressing chapters in German-Greek history, as the 1940s stand for occupation, Holocaust and civil war.

Giving space to different stories and personal experiences and thus contributing to a new, more differentiated perspective on this difficult decade was and is the goal of the exhibition. The development of the exhibition revealed asymmetries in the work of remembrance, as the speakers explained in the opening of the digital exhibition. The exhibition makers are not interested in a scientific documentation, but in opening up new contexts with the symbolism of artefacts from art, poetry and other aesthetic media. The mosaic of artistic perspectives also makes it possible to critically question dominant myths that history has meanwhile congealed into. In this way, the exhibition also becomes an example of the power of art to question state-imposed memory policies, to endure ambivalences and to address intertwined biographies as well as traumatic experiences.

“History is not a prison, history must be a school”, said Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias at the opening of the exhibition in Thessaloniki in December 2016 – and he was referring to the liberating future perspectives that such reflective and, above all, cooperative memory work can open up. I would like to understand all three examples as building blocks on the way to a common European culture of remembrance, which we need more than ever today and in the coming years.

It is a matter of keeping spaces open for debates and confrontations and at the same time creating connections instead of competing for victims within individual societies, but above all also transnationally. The special opportunity of art is to show complexity, to allow quiet tones and to endure ambiguities, without which a common memory cannot emerge. The Goethe-Institut has made a contribution to this in its own way and will continue to do so in the future. And in this spirit, I wish the Goethe-Institut in Athens and Greece many more productive years!